Zuckerberg on Oprah: More than crisis PR
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg appears on Oprah to launch his charity foundation to help New Jersey schools. But is his appearance any more than just an attempt to counterbalance a critical movie?
Zuckerberg and Oprah. They go together like steak and custard. At least in the eyes of many, perhaps slightly jaundiced, observers.
The story goes that the Facebook CEO's appearance Friday on Oprah Winfrey's show was a vast, cynical attempt to blunt any ill effects from the launch of a movie that portrays him as a sleazy little nerd with slightly fewer than one scruple.
That story, of course, may be true. The grand gesture of a $100 million donation to schools in New Jersey certainly offers a counterweight to a movie in which only billions seem to matter.
But perhaps this appearance had far more value than mere temporary crisis management.
This was Zuckerberg's first real appearance before real people. This was the first time that those whose children spend far more time on his site than they do, say, talking to their moms, got to see who was behind this weirdly addictive phenomenon.
And what the Facebook CEO did so well was to appear awkward, uncomfortable and almost painfully human.
He is not a natural Oprah embracer.
His attempt at a hug was beautifully clumsy. The look in his eyes that said: "How many more minutes of this must I endure?" was quite precious. His answer to the question of why he chose to donate vast sums of money to New Jersey lacked a little conviction (answer should have been: "Oh, come on, New Jersey always needs help. Even Carmelo Anthony doesn't really want to go there").
But he presented his face to those who really matter.
Those who really matter are not people in the tech world who rightly criticize him for his obvious, cynical obfuscations on the subject of privacy.
The people whom Zuckerberg must now present himself to are the real people out there who use his site, not understanding all the implications of their participation.
Recently, tech CEOs are coming to realize that their real constituency is not those with whom they feel strangely comfortable--their own kind--but those real humans who rely on their products every day. It is not coincidence that Google CEO Eric Schmidt is.
And while Zuckerberg may have gone kicking and screaming onto Oprah, no doubt wriggling and screeching as that jacket was forced around his shoulders by several large bouncers, he may have to do more of that endearing deer-in-headlights public presentation.
Facebook is the most human site of all. Unlike Google, it is not about cold, hard information. It is about the warm, cuddly aspects of humanity. You know, friendship, kinship, and telling your ex that your ship has sailed.
Zuckerberg's human, awkward, steady-relationship, girlfriend-kissing, house-renting, Chinese-learning self is surely fundamental to making real people feel a little more comfortable about his brand and its motivations.
Not merely at a time when he might perceive a PR crisis, but for a much longer term, and purpose.